Hung, drawn and quota-ed

Yesterday I was speaking at the National Youth Film Academy – a really good, highly practical filmmaking course – and the topic of quotas came up. Was it right, I and colleagues from Equity and Directors UK were asked, that there should be quotas for getting more women writing film and television.

And is it fair, continued the point, for women if they are only there because of a quota?

Writing isn’t fair.

And nor should it be. Not ever, not in any possible way. Film and television and radio and books and stage and games, and anything else you can think of, do not exist for writers. You do not get to write a TV drama because it’s your turn.

Instead, everything is always for the audience. It was ever thus, it will always be thus, and there has never been one moment when it should not be thus.

So of course the idea of a quota, the idea of anything that artificially changes who gets to write things ought to be wrong and we shouldn’t need it.

But we need it.

We truly, truly need quotas.

Not because we’ve got some issue and require certain percentages of shows to be by women, certain percentages by certain ethnic minorities or certain proportions of drama to be about certain issues.

We need something because we already have certain percentages and they are wrong.

Without any quotas, without any effort, we ought to naturally have a situation where everything is achieved through merit. If you’re a good enough writer, you ought to be getting to write.

So explain to me why only 14 percent of primetime UK television is written by women.

That’s the figure right now and we know it because the Writers’ Guild counted. It counted as the start of a campaign called Equality Writes and ultimately it wants to find out exactly how well or poorly represented every facet of UK life is on television and film. The Writers’ Guild started by counting women because it was possible to get that data.

Now it’s researching further, but to be honest, I’m surprised they can face it. As well as that 14 percent for TV, the figure for film is 16 percent.

Here I am stridently saying that writing isn’t fair and shouldn’t be, but tell me that 14 and 16 percent is the result of merit. Tell me that there really is just that proportion of writers who are women. While you’re at it, tell me how exactly that figure has been approximately just as low for every year the Writers’ Guild examined.

There is no possibility, not one single pixel of a possibility, that British television and film writing is by merit.

Instead, the current system is bollocks. And I chose that word carefully.

So some quota system, really some anything system, anything that changes this is necessary. Anything that breaks the system, just give me that.

I was the last of three to speak to this point yesterday and my colleagues from Equity and Directors UK were impassioned and eloquent. Representing the Writers’ Guild but also representing myself, I couldn’t really add any more to the points raised – but I also really could not just nod in agreement.

“I want quotas or anything that changes this,” I said, “because it’s right and because I care about the writers. But also because I am just so tired of seeing film and radio and television and stage all being written by boring, middle-aged white men. And I am a boring, middle-aged white man.”

You’d think in an audience of about 200 filmmakers that one of them could’ve said I was wrong about that last part, but seemingly not.

Stream Misty for Me

Tell me you do this too. There’s a song or come piece of music that you get so obsessed with that you not only could play it on a loop, but you do.

It’s often when I’m writing and I thought both that this was a little peculiar and also nuts to peculiar, I ain’t stopping now. More than fifteen years ago, I created a playlist called Discoveries and only ever added a track to it when it had been one I so obsessed over.

The rule was even more specific than that. It had to be a piece I had been drawn to play so often that I was eventually sick of it. My Discoveries playlist became around 130 songs, all of which I now loathed.

Well, a bit.

Whenever I really needed to concentrate on whatever I was writing, I would pop headphones on and tell iTunes to shuffle Discoveries. I might skip the odd track if it really was so recent that I’d gone off it, but usually I’d let everything play and I’d have a grand time.

There is one more rule and one strong guideline.

The guideline is that I avoid allowing too many tracks by the same artist. With 130 tracks or whatever it became, having the entire discography of Suzanne Vega in Discoveries would just be wrong. Tempting, but wrong.

And the rule is that once it goes into Discoveries, it cannot be taken out. Not ever. Which means that it’s not enough to be a hit I quite like, I have to really, really obsess. If I can’t listen to the one same track a hundred times in a row, it ain’t good enough to be included.

And this cannot be premeditated or even considered. It has to be that I am compelled right now to add it. I’ve been got to the stage recently where I’ve made a Discoveries Contenders playlist.

Here’s how hard it is to get into my playlist. I have only one Suzanne Vega song in it. That surprised me a lot. That surprised me so much that I must surely revisit her albums, I’d have been certain most of her Songs in Red and Gray album would be in here already.

Now that I’m looking, I see that I’ve got two by Regina Spektor. Three by Kate Bush. Four by Tanita Tikaram. Five by Dar Williams. And I didn’t expect this: seven by Bruce Springsteen.

I have also made some choices I regret.

But at some point I read an interview with – I think – Anthony Minghella. I don’t believe he has a Discoveries playlist, but there was some comment about how he would have single songs on endless repeat. I hope it was him, I’d rather be a little bit like Anthony Minghella than a lot like the nutter I thought I was.

And then there’s this. Last night, I was in a supermarket queue and it really, really slowly dawned on me that nobody else was dancing.

I was wearing AirPods, these blissful wireless headphones, and I was shuffling Discoveries. To be specific, I was being incapable of standing still because I had Tómame by Francisca Valenzuela in my ears.

And as I’d left my car, as I entered the supermarket and as I walked down aisle 9, I wasn’t humming the lyrics, I was instead saying “Hey, Siri, play that again”.

Valenzuela is a Chilean singer and I rarely understand a word of her songs – weirdly, I never like her English-language ones as much – and right now she has six tracks in my Discoveries.

And here’s the other thing. It took at least fifteen years to get to somewhere around 130 tracks. But in the last three years I’ve added another 110.

That’s entirely because of streaming. I subscribe to Apple Music and with one single exception, all 110 new additions to Discoveries come from that service. The exception is Kate Bush’s reggae cover of Rocket Man which I had to actually buy. I barely remembered how to do that.

This is on my mind because of the supermarket dance. It’s also on my mind because if it’s streaming music that’s got me several Francisca Valenzuela tracks, it was iTunes that got me my first back around 2007.

I worry about how artists must get lost in the flood of our being able to listen to just about anything at any moment and for practically no cost.

But I’m not kidding about dancing in Asda and I’m really not kidding about my Discoveries playlist. You and I can immediately listen to any of millions of songs yet I will play the same one over and over again as I write.

Imagine writing something that a stranger obsesses over, internalises, and lives for.

While I piddle about making playlists.

On That Day

From November 12, 2005 to October 12, 2008, I used to write an On This Day piece for Radio Times. It was officially about television history, it was really about the history of how Radio Times covered television history, and it was a little column that appeared on every day’s listing’s page.

Well, depending on where you lived, that it is. The true reason for the piece was to fill a hole. Different regions of the UK got different editions of Radio Times and some of them needed a quite large section showing regional television variations. If you lived in an area where you could pick up two or more ITV stations, for instance, then RT listed them.

If you didn’t, your morning TV listings page had a hole in it.

Hello. I got to fill that space with about 90 words to do with something Radio Times had said about some television or radio show on that day. It obviously had to be true, but it also had to be interesting and preferably relevant somehow, plus naturally I had to write it so that you would hopefully enjoy reading it.

In the end, I wrote some 1,415 entries. I’d deliver them a week at a time –– except around Christmas where typically I’d have to write five weeks or 35 entries together to meet deadlines –– and every week I’d study the RT archive.

I can still picture certain weeks. Such as the time I was reading the RT archive in what was then the Central Library in Birmingham and there was a whole team of people doing the same thing as me. They weren’t half organised, too. I can picture four of them with laptops, pounding through issue after issue and noting down even more detail than I was.

That was the first time I met the Kaleidoscope group, an astonishing organisation that maintains a TV Brain database and finds lost television. If you’ve heard of a long-lost show being recovered, the odds are high that Kaleidoscope did it and through-the-roof high that Kaleidoscope was involved at some point.

And I also remember where I sat when I was, for once, working to a brief, and researching January 21. I’ve long told people that I had been supposed to write about The Glittering Prizes, a rightly famous BBC drama, and instead had gasped when I found that the children’s show Kizzy started on the same day. I used to tell people that I’d looked around the library, as if afraid someone would stop me, and instead of Prizes, I wrote about Kizzy.

Apparently it’s not true. I did sit there in the library, transported back to 1976 and seeing that show air, but I didn’t write about it for January 21. According to my research database, I instead pegged it to the show’s sixth and final episode on February 25, 1976. I wimped out.

I should say that the reason I stopped doing On This Day for Radio Times is that they had a redesign of the pages and no longer had a gap to fill. However, all these years later, they still know a good idea when they see one because RT’s Mark Braxton regularly does the same thing –– but he does it on Twitter.

This is all on my mind now because I came across the fact that on this day in 1987, The Tracey Ullman Show debuted in America. You know Tracey Ullman, but still you’re looking blank. This means that it was 32 years ago today that The Simpsons first appeared on TV. They were then a short insert into Ullman’s show and they’re now a mildly amusing sitcom. But in between those two, they were fantastic.

I hope I knew that before and that the only reason I didn’t cover it in RT was that this debut was in America. I’ve checked and I did cover when BBC1 first started airing The Simpsons proper – it was November 23, 1996.

But then while poking around this old research and enjoying myself, I found something else.


April 5, 1966. The Money Programme. As you can imagine, I made more notes than I ultimately used, so here’s a fuller quote from that original issue of RT.

“Britain is like the son of a rich man who has inherited the family fortune and is spending the lot,” said a Belgian banker who has extensive dealings in the City. With the recurrent tale of lost export orders, balance of payments trouble and pressure on the pound, people aboard now speak of “the English sickness” which has dogged us since the war, rather than any spectacular business achievements. They must wonder what happened to the British flair for business.

This year is bound to see dramatic developments. With a debt of £899 million round our necks to be repaid in four years, and a current balance of payments deficit, we cannot escape the pressure to improve our efficiency. Even without the pressure of our economic difficulties, the impact of automation, and the computer (felt increasingly in America) is bound to raise many painful issues for management, labour, and Government, in this country. We must prepare for a second industrial revolution.”

That’s 53 years ago and today everything is so different.

So 551, not out and March 29, not out either

It turns out that this is the 551st Self Distract. It was pointed out to me last week that I’d started it in 2006, but I know it didn’t become a thing for some years. But it’s been every Friday for a long time now so let’s say 551 divided by 52 equals ten and a bit. Let’s call this the tenth anniversary of Self Distract proper.

Funny that it should happen today, though. I mean, okay, we’ve just contrived the numbers to make it happen, but the numbers were there and they were there today, March 29, 2019.

Since whatever day it was that I actually made this an unbreakable weekly chat, I have broken it once.

Just the once.

You won’t know or remember the absence of a Self Distract, but you’re a bit more likely to recognise the date. It was the day after June 23, 2016. The result of the damned Brexit referendum was announced and I couldn’t move.

Well, I’m surprised I say that because moving was all I could do: I shook. I actually convulsed.

When I regained some discipline, the following week, I wrote this:

If you looked out of your window and thought everything seems much the same as it did, go out the door instead. If you think we’ll look back on this in five years and wonder what the fuss was about, you’re confusing things being fine with having no damn choice about it. I hope we will become inured to this result but we are permanently injured.

And here we are. March 29, 2019, the day the UK leaves Europe –– except it doesn’t. I no longer know what date to dread, but the effects are already here and I’m not over it.

I wanted to talk to you about music today. About how we can and can’t write to music, how it does and doesn’t help us when we’re writing. But then I saw the 551 number and then I realised that not only had I nearly forgotten to put the bins out, I’d also nearly missed today’s date.

i think I’m going to carry on missing it. Let’s put the kettle on, get back to writing, and try to do something good.

Visibly invisible

For sixteen months, I’ve been working as hard as I know to be completely invisible in a project but now it’s done, I want to shout that I did it. I’ve realised that I don’t often talk to you about specific things I’m working on but this was one that I have itched to and now that it’s been officially launched, I can.

It’s the National Trust’s What is Home exhibition at Croome.

Croome in Worcestershire is a Georgian stately home and the Trust is preserving it, but the National Trust always also wants to preserve the memories of the people who lived and worked in a place. It isn’t about buildings, it’s about the people who have called these places home. And Croome has been a different type of home to many different types of people from its original days with the rich and on through its time as a boys’ school.

The thinking about this led the National Trust to explore the whole idea of What is Home? It is all about Croome, but the idea is that it is really all about us. We create our homes and then, I think, our homes rather create us back.

And as I’ve written in the notes for the What is Home exhibition, if you want to know what home really means, ask someone who’s had theirs taken away from them.

The National Trust commissioned artist Kashif Nadim Chaudry to work with the ex-pupils from when Croome was a school and also with school-age children who are currently in foster care. He ran workshops with groups and together with the National Trust team, he worked individually with the ex-pupils. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t comfortable, it wasn’t cosy – but I was there and I can tell you it was also fun.

He asked each person to loan us an object or two that signifies home to them. Anything. Rachel Sharpe, who created the project, told every participant that their object would be treated the same way that the National Trust treats million-pound oil paintings. I was there for that too and she wasn’t kidding. There was painstaking cataloguing and there is precision tracking of every single object as it came in from the participants and ultimately ended up in Nadim’s art installation.

Nadim has done this utterly gorgeous artwork that shows all the items together. It’s plain in the sense that it’s not adorned or over dramatised, but it’s also beautiful. The objects are on plinths that gently rise and fall as you’re looking at them. It’s as if the art installation itself knows which part you’re focusing on and it offers you a better look. Then the whole piece, all of the artwork, is housed in a lattice-work frame that seems to float in the room. Just beautiful.

Photo: Jack Nelson


And so far you’ve only gathered that I wrote some notes. There’s a second room which contains a couple of panels explaining the project and the history of Croome. I wrote those and you’ll see my byline on them.

You won’t see my name on the more important writing.

And if you were anyone else, I would even deny that I did the writing at all.

For behind Nadim’s artwork, there is a wall full of quotes from the participants. They’re all very short, never more than two or three sentences, and they are as plainly written as they are plainly displayed. I mean, the typography is exquisite but it’s presented entirely for clarity, it’s meant to be read, it isn’t trying to be pretty.

I wrote it all.

I worked with the participants, I worked with National Trust people who know the ex-pupils very well, I worked to capture what home meant to the participants. Some of the sentences are simple, direct quotes. But all of the time it was a question of conveying feeling as much as anything, of connecting you to that person. My aim was that you read this wall and you do not ever think that it was written at all, you just take in the words and it is as if those people were standing there in front of you.

I’ve told the National Trust this next bit. I said to them that if we’d known at the start exactly how many words I’d be writing, I’d have told them I’d need about an hour to write it. Compared to books and articles and scripts, it is a tiny amount of writing. And yet it has occupied me for sixteen months and I ain’t kidding when I say it’s occupied me. I have lain awake at nights thinking about it.

This What Is Home idea cuts so very deep that it was exposing some remarkably personal thoughts and feelings. I was being trusted to communicate that from these participants to you and, God in heaven, the responsibility. Also, frankly, the work was beyond me. It required fewer words than I have ever written for anything else, but it necessitated reaching deeper into myself than I ever have before.

And I have not told the National Trust this next bit.

I didn’t think I’d succeeded.

Because the text goes along with the objects that the participants loaned, and because those objects are being tracked in a database, I had to deliver my writing in an Excel spreadsheet. I’d read the latest draft of it and I’d know that I’d technically accomplished certain things, but the stories of these participants have often upset me and text in that spreadsheet didn’t.

I don’t want to knock Excel, but clearly it’s rubbish.

Because last Saturday, I read all the text again on the wall and it made me cry.

I think I’ve managed to be invisible. You do stand there and know that you have the participants and you have Nadim’s artwork. You don’t stand there and think this wall is written or composed or studied or drafted or contrived. It is plain and it is plainly the participants talking to you.

Do go have a look yourself if you possibly can. And whether you can or not, do have a read of that official website as it includes photographs of Nadim’s work plus interviews with both he and I.

Oh! Wait, one more thing. This tickles me and at the same time I think it fits everything I wanted to do. I said that there’s a second room away from Nadim’s artwork. Amongst items from Croome’s days as a school, there is also a video about the project. Last Saturday afternoon, I was standing behind a group of visitors as we watched it. And not one of them twigged that the fella on the screen talking about the writing was also the guy standing there with them and wiping his eyes.

You are quite amusing

Okay, that subject heading has nothing to do with what I want to talk to you about. But it’s on my mind. Yesterday I was working in a school, doing the usual thing of coming in, causing a ruckus and getting out again. But at one point, a young girl of either 10 or 11, said to me: “You are quite amusing.”

I took it as a giant compliment, but I was also supremely tickled by the word ‘quite’. You were, too.

Anyway, I was there running a writing session and she wanted to ask me about a story problem she was having with a book she’s working on. We talked during a break, I think her story is delightful and very well worked out, and then I went back to my hotel room and learned what had been going on with Brexit.

I’m not going to talk to you about that. I just can’t. Last night I was able to forget about it quickly because I was working on a thing, writing late into the evening. Yet maybe it’s because this young woman’s story problem was to do with plot and maybe it was because Brexit is insane, but something made me change my mind about drama.

It used to be that, without exception, I knew, I just knew that the very greatest drama comes when you have two strong characters in a room arguing – and both of them are right.

God, but that’s hard to write. Both characters equally smart, intelligent, passionate and equally right about an issue that is complex, challenging and vital.

I’m not sure I’ve ever pulled it off myself, but you know it when you see it. For some reason my mind is leaping to The West Wing and its first seasons with writer Aaron Sorkin.

That’s fair because he and his West Wing writing staff were very good at this, but it’s also appropriate because that was a political show and it is specifically politics that have changed my mind.

I’ll still and forever relish the kind of drama where you have these two characters who are both right.

But now I am forced to wonder if it isn’t more dramatic, much more dramatic, when you have two strong characters arguing passionately – and they’re both wrong.

I think that’s what we’ve got here with Brexit as all these votes, all this posturing, all this bollocks goes on. All we’re missing is strong characters.

But to make up for it, while these arguments are going on, it’s our futures that are going to be affected. That are already affected. Maybe that’s what makes this dramatic, that giant consequences are resting on the shoulders of a government and opposition that prefer to pose instead of look us in the eye.

I said I wasn’t going to talk to you about this and I didn’t intend to. I’ve reached the point where I can’t always actually understand the headlines on BBC News – last night I had to keep re-reading one before I could work out the double negatives about not voting for a no-deal – so I’ve taken to reading the New York Times instead.

That paper is covering this but with the detachment of being based in a different country, even if admittedly a country with its own problems. When the New York Times writes about Brexit, it does tend to be well written and clear, sometimes with helpful diagrams, but it also has this unintentionally bemused tone.

Which can be quite amusing.

Misterioso

I’ve worked a lot in schools this week because Thursday was World Book Day. It’s a privilege to be asked into a school as a visiting author and always, always an exhausting delight. But this time, rather reasonably, I did seem to keep being asked what my favourite book is.

Depending on when I was asked, my answer ranged from Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce to The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and probably all points in between. I didn’t lie to anyone, but I want to tell you the truth.

My favourite book is Misterioso by Alan Plater. It’s out of print, long out of print, and you may not think it’s the best of his immense body of work. I know you may not because he didn’t. The last time I saw Alan before he died in 2010, I mentioned this book of his and he told me that he hadn’t read it since he wrote it in 1987.

I had.

Many times.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read that book now, but it’s easily six or eight or more in those years and the last time – so far – was particularly special. I’ve got the hardback, I’ve got the paperback that followed and I’ve read them both but now I have the original typescript.

Well, no, I have a PDF of the manuscript. I photographed every page in the Hull History Centre when I was doing some research there. I photographed every page of the manuscript, all the publishers’ correspondence, two drafts of the television version that was aired and one episode of a substantially different TV script that was never filmed.

So you could say I’m quite keen on this story.

But I will tell you right now that there appears to be very little to it. In reality, well, there’s genuinely not a lot to it. When her mother is killed in a car accident, Rachel sorts out her papers and discovers that her dear old Dad is not her father. The novel starts off appearing to be a reasonably familiar tale of someone searching for their real parent.

Except in this case, she finds him and quite quickly.

It’s not about her father, it’s not about her Dad, it’s not about her mother. It’s about Rachel and how small moments become big questions and little changes of attitude become life-altering.

You can easily argue that nothing happens in the novel but by the end, Rachel’s life is transformed.

That’s it, just a little complete life transformation.

For World Book Day, though, I would like to get really specific and tell you that my favourite book is this manuscript version of Misterioso. Because as well as feeling like a special thing, having the typewritten pages my friend wrote, the manuscript also answered a question that had been annoying me since 1987.

There’s a mistake in the novel.

It’s always been there and Alan knew it was there because he fixed it for the subsequent TV version. But as ever with his work, it’s a small thing that’s simultaneously huge. In the novel, Rachel’s real father, Paul, does not know her name when they meet. And that’s despite our having learned that a mutual friend of his and Rachel’s mother used to keep him informed about how Rachel was.

It’s a slap to the reader. It’s a head-jolt and I’ve never understood it.

Until I read the manuscript.

There aren’t many alterations from the original pages but there are the odd few points where Alan rewrote and retyped something, then taped it over the first draft. Literally taped. This was 1987, this was a typewriter.

Typewritten!


And one of those alterations concerns a plot point. Alan seems to have felt that he needed to be clearer about how a character got a certain piece of information that ultimately leads Rachel to her real father. I don’t think he needed to do it, but fixing that small point early on in the book left us with this slap about a third of the way in or so.

To stand up why a character has Paul’s address, Alan creates a little two-paragraph story about how he and she had stayed in touch. He gives a reason, he makes it sensible that she would have his address. But that story, that excuse, is what then makes it impossible that Paul wouldn’t know Rachel’s name.

Alan missed it.

I read that page and the original version in the Hull History Centre and I jumped up in my seat, looking for someone to tell. Where were you?

Surprise and Demand

Last night I was laughing at the script to an episode of The Detectorists. Really shaking, weeping, guffawing. This kind of couch behaviour gets noticed when someone else is trying to watch The Doctor Blake Mysteries. But then it leads to information in the many ad breaks on the Alibi channel.

Toby Jones co-stars in The Detectorists and my wife Angela Gallagher, who has the most amazing knowledge of casts, told me that he’s just become patron of Claybody Theatre, the tremendous company founded by Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson.

So far this is all current, topical, present-day stuff but then she tells me that Toby Jones is the son of Freddie Jones and I am instantly right back to the mid-1970s when I was a child watching him in The Ghosts of Motley Hall by Richard Carpenter.

You’ve had this, you’ve been thrown back to something and doubtlessly someone watching Motley Hall at the time was drawn to remember seeing Freddie Jones in 1967’s Far from the Madding Crowd.

Only, that 1970s viewer being reminded of a 1960s film could do nothing more than be reminded of it. Whereas no sooner than Doctor Blake had saved the day than we were actually watching the first episode of The Ghosts of Motley Hall.

It’s far from true that any film or show you can think of is available for you to watch immediately, but it feels as if it is. Last week I bought the first seasons of St Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues. Earlier this week, a friend was looking for recommendations for something to watch before her Amazon Prime trial ran out and I spent an hour trying to find the name of something I’d relished on it.

An hour.

It took forty seconds to go from Doctor Blake to a 1976 episode of Motley Hall but an hour to get a film –– solely because I couldn’t remember its name. Even when I did find it and I did recommend it to my friend, I knew I’d forget the title again so I just bought it on iTunes.

That was Your Sister’s Sister by writer/director Lynn Shelton and it is more than worth the hour I spent looking. Not only because I relish that film and have just watched it again, but also because my prodding searches online for what detail I could recall of this film also turned up a movie called My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. Now, I know that movie under another title, Boyfriends and Girlfriends, and it’s one I delight in that’s written and directed by Eric Rohmer.

We are at the stage where a stray recollection is instantly satisfied. Where a small whim is filled in a thrice. And where to find something to watch, you no longer use Radio Times, you use Google.

It makes my mind split in two different directions. One is to think that who has time for broadcast telly any more? Television is like a delivery mechanism now, it’s a way of getting Fleabag ready for us. Television and film have become the libraries we dip into instead of the live, shared experience it was.

I can’t help but lament how everyone, simply everyone, watched when André Previn was on The Morecambe and Wise Show. Yet I can’t help but adore the fact that everyone, simply everyone, can watch that segment right now.

Well, that link is to a site called Dailymotion which currently thinks that after watching a 1971 Morecambe and Wise sketch I will want to see Miley Cyrus topless. The internet, eh?

And, well, there isn’t half an issue about the rights to this and all these creators not being paid while sites are getting ad revenue from showing them. That’s enormous. I bought My Sister’s Sister, Boyfriends and Girlfriends, Hill Street Blues and St Elsewhere but if Motley Hall is available to buy, I don’t know because I just saw it on YouTube.

The other direction my mind goes in, though, is this. Motley Hall was 43 years ago. When Peter Tork died recently, I watched the first episode of The Monkees and that was 53 years ago.

Imagine being back then in 1966 and able to watch anything you liked from 1913. Or living in 1913 and being able to watch something from 1860.

We have an unprecedented, unimaginable, incomprehensible ability to instantly taste our own culture as it was during the last half a century. Well, okay, we’re all chiefly locked to our own nation’s culture: it presumably is possible to do the same and watch any film from, say, India’s last five decades but I don’t know how to do it and those movies would be a sea to me without any markers or references or memories.

And of course this ability is locked to films and television, occasionally some radio. It only shows you what was being shown, it doesn’t really take you back in time. Except that of course it does: The Ghosts of Motley Hall has an innocence I can miss and a slow pace we lack today too.

Equally, On the Buses is about to be released on DVD for its fiftieth anniversary. The only thing more certain that this show captured its time is that I ain’t going to watch it.

We all make things for now, I don’t think anyone makes drama or comedy with much of an eye to the future beyond possible sales to different broadcasters and platforms. Yet this is mass of visual work is making me conscious both of how anything I make must be unconsciously imbued with the time that I make it –– and of how we must surely run out of room some day.

Maybe we’ll have to move to Mars just because there’s no more space to store all the episodes of NCIS.

Or videos of Miley Cyrus.

The Plumb Pudding in Danger

Maybe as much as thirty years ago, I came across a political cartoon called “The Plumb Pudding in Danger” and I have wanted to use that as a title ever since.

Last Monday, I did.

It’s so long since I found that image that I can’t remember what I was doing or even much about it: I have to refer to my own script in order to tell you that it shows Napoleon and William Pitt the Younger carving up the world which is depicted as a plumb pudding.

James Gillray’s The Plumb Pudding in Danger (1805)

I had that image projected onto the wall at The Door theatre in the Birmingham Rep as part of Bad Choices, a night of plays by Cucumber Writers. Even if you’re as historically ill-informed as I am, you can see that cartoon is an ancient thing and I needed there to be no doubt that the play was present-day. So I had it as if it were on the wall of the office the play is set in – and next to it I had an image of Theresa May.

Or as the script says: “Theresa May or whoever is Prime Minister when we stage this.”

I wrote all this in the script and no doubt whoever directed the play would’ve had the images shown as described, but in this case that was me. I directed it.

It was my first time directing an evening of theatre so it was first proper time as a hyphenate. A writer-director.

Only, I also then ended up producing.

And as my Plumb Pudding script has a character who you only hear over speakers, I also acted the part offstage with a microphone.

Writer-director-producer-actor.

Just go back over those words, would you? How far through do you get before it stops sounding impressive and instead starts to seem a bit cheap?

It is fascinating, though, to briefly hold all these different perspectives in your head. I was sitting in the audience for most of the evening, more aware and more conscious, more in the moment than I can easily recall. Each beat of each play, examined. Each reaction from the audience.

It makes you oddly dispassionate, or at least it did me. So for instance, I think as a producer I fell short because I took my eye off the ball about promoting the evening enough. I concentrated on the material and making it happen. As a writer, I was good but there’s one character in my piece that I need to work on. As an actor, I was adequate on a microphone but if I’d actually shared the stage with my cast, I’d have been blown away.

And as a director, I was strong on the short plays and very clear about what I wanted, very able – I believe – to have everyone contributing. But we also had two poems in the mix and there I was out of my depth. I could direct some stagecraft, I could direct about pacing and where to aim or emphasise certain parts, but otherwise it was a poem. It rhymes, I thought. And that was my extent of expertise in it.

Those poems were by Rupi Lal. The other plays that I directed were by Louise Marshall and Emma Davis. There was one more play by Matthew Warburton that he brought in pre-directed so I could just relish watching that one.

He starred in his one with Kath Waters. My cast was Alan Wales, Deb McEwan and Dru Stephenson.

My co-producer was Angela Gallagher.

And if you want an night of theatre doing, these are the people you must get. I still and will always believe that it has to be on the page, but there were a hundred moments during rehearsals when I’d stop to just marvel at what the cast were doing with the material.

There were also a hundred thousand moments beforehand where I was sick to my stomach at the entire prospect of directing. But only you know that and as far as anyone else is concerned, when can I do it again?

Poet-time lover

I need to say this first. If you’re near Birmingham next Monday evening, February 18, 2019, then do come to Bad Choices at the Birmingham Rep. It’s an evening of new plays and poetry by Cucumber Writers and as well as having written one of the pieces, I’m also directing. It’s my first evening directing stage so a friendly face would be really good.

It’s 20:00 on Monday 18 February, 2019, at The Door in the Birmingham Rep. There’s no need to book and there’s no ticket price, just a big bucket on your way out. Details here on the Rep’s Open Door page.

Now, it’s funny that this evening should feature poetry because I would’ve told you that this is the one form of writing I can’t do. Not true: I also cannot do sports reporting, though that’s for want of trying.

I haven’t written the poems in this evening and as I speak to you I’ve little clue how to direct them, but I’ll figure it out.

And I’m particularly looking forward to that because this show comes after the Verve Poetry Festival and that’s where I was yesterday. Verve is an especially fine poetry festival held in Birmingham and it turns out to be rather joyously welcoming world. As much as I like reading poetry, I don’t write it and there is this entire eco-system of poems and poets that I know nothing about.

Quick story? I was talking with this fella the other month and he was asking which side I was on in a truly huge fight that was going in poetry. He didn’t use those words, I can’t remember what phrase he did use but he’s a poet, it would’ve been good. If he had called it a truly huge fight, though, I would’ve looked as blank as I actually did and said: a truly huge fight – in the poetry world?

It was big. Sorry, I’ve forgotten what it was now. This is a rubbish story. But there are these worlds and there are these universes and they’re moving around us, just waiting to be spotted and joined.

We all have feet in many different worlds and amongst mine there’s always been a technology one. I remain deaf and blind to recitations of technical specifications, but wide open to how technology can help me in my writing and all of my work.

Two things surprised me about peeking into poetry through the Verve Festival and one was this. I’m not alone with the technology side of it all. The faces of poets glow these days because so many of them are using iPads or iPhones. There is something oddly extra intimate about seeing someone read a piece off their phone: it’s like they’re sharing something even more personal than off some paper.

And the other thing that surprised me is that poet Helen Calcutt ran a workshop during which she ended up getting me to write a poem that deeply upsets me. She hasn’t seen it, you’re not going to see it, I make no claim to great poetic talent, but it’s a day later and just thinking about it is enough to punch me.

When you use words all the time, you can forget that they’re powerful.

Verve is on until February 17. Cucumber’s Bad Choices night is February 18.